The First Sip

October 16th, 2016

See our Sun gently break the line of the eastern horizon on its slow ascension to its mid-day peak. You sit quietly by the window. Watching and contemplating life. You slowly sip on the cup of fresh coffee you just prepared and you wonder how the people on Earth can stay vibrant when the Sun provides only finite energy.

Perhaps your thoughts will extend to the number of people all about. This is key. Take for example something as simple as your cup of coffee. You enjoy it but every day 2.5 billion other people enjoy a cup of coffee. That’s over 1.6e+11 litres of water annually for coffee. And 4.5e+9 litres of cream. And 3.6e+9 kg of sugar. Focusing solely on the coffee shows the sheer magnitude of human consumption. Coffee comes from the seed of the coffee plant. Each year humans harvest 8.6e+9 kg of seeds. That`s equal to 20 of the largest ship’s afloat today. The plants require 5.4e+6 hectares of suitable land. That’s larger than the area of Costa Rica. And just to brew the coffee requires 3e+10 kWh of energy, more than the total electric power produced by nuclear in Belgium. Do you see now how the sheer number of humans scales every common action to supersize.

Some have said that the purpose of life is to pursue happiness. Following this means that we will continue to enjoy our cups of coffee even if it means consuming the seeds from over 9 billion domesticated, particularized plants. They can’t make more plants as their seeds have gone. The land can’t support other life as it’s dedicated to coffee production. Should we consider the choices that we make as we sit back and enjoy the small things in life, like sipping on coffee and watching the Sun rise?

Shine the Light

September 17th, 2016

A shining sun brings smiles to the faces of most people who wake up and see it in the morning. It’s a harbinger of good times for the day ahead. It warms us. It grows our plants. And it’s now directly powering our machines. The Sun is our friend.

China has the largest installed base of solar power at 43.2TWh. A truly amazing amount. China’s annual energy consumption is about 36065 TWh. A representative solar production is 2.3GWh per square kilometre which would thus require China to allocate 15.7 million square kilometres or 1.6 thousand million hectares to get all their power from solar. China has about 1000 million hectares of land area with about 72% already being allocated. Where will they get all that they need? Total primary energy used by humans on Earth in 2012 amounted to 155 505TWh. Using the same metric means this would require over 13% of all of Earth’s land area to be used for solar power plants. Does the Earth really have that much area to spare for solar power?

Our Sun, that amazing star so nearby, allures us ever on to greater feats. Can we rely solely upon it to keep us alive and to power our technology? Time will tell.

Stimulus Spending

August 19th, 2016

You know the old saying that goes “The only certain things in life are death and taxes”. True as it is, neither certainty is appealing. Death is a biological certainty. Governments needing money is a certainty of civilization. Let’s consider government stimulus spending. Apparently, this spending is a contrived opportunity for a government to get into a large amount of debt with no purpose other than to spend. Theoretically by them spending then the ratepayers will be encouraged to spend and thus boost the national economy. At least that’s the Keynesian saying.

Japan recently announced a stimulus spending package of from 130 to 270 billion dollars. Their national debt lies at about 10 trillion dollars. Sure Japan has the third greatest world economy on a GDP ranking but eventually the Japanese ratepayers will have to pay off all this debt. And all its accumulated interest. Will the workers of Japan have the energy to do so? Will they have the incentive to do so? Can the Earth provide enough base material to enable humans to constructively and industriously work to pay the debts of Japan and all other nations? And the debt of all the corporations? And the debt of all the individuals? How many acres of farmland, tonnes of ore and oceans of fish will we need to process to pay down the world debt of over 61 trillion dollars? And how many joules of energy will our machines need to do most of the processing work for us? Given that there’s a finite limit to the amount of non-renewable energy on Earth then a stimulus package may be inappropriate.

It used to be that we could run to the store to get food and run home again. Then we’d cook the food to eat and re-energize our bodies so that we could run some more. If we don’t re-energize then we might die as happened to Pheidippides running his marathon. Consider all humanity as running a race today. We are all running very hard trying to compete. We need energy at the end of our race. Energy is finite. Can we say that we have enough energy to recover from our race?

The Plane

July 17th, 2016

Don’t you just wish that we could keep all the luxuries and toys of our technological age forever? Imagine an inexhaustible supply of energy to power all our electronic gadgets, carry us to work and fly us around the globe. Is that what we’re imagining when we think that renewable energy can become our sole source of power? That would be a wonderful wish to have come true.

The Solar Impulse 2, a plane powered solely by the Sun, is certainly an engineering marvel and perhaps helping our wish come true. Within it, two people have flown around our world. Two people stayed within the confines of something close in size to a phone booth and hopped over oceans and continents to achieve this feat. How practical is this? Well, consider that these two people needed more than 1 year to circumnavigate our globe. Then compare this to the current air fleet. In just one year the world fleet flew over 3.57 billion people from one place to another. As well, they carried about 42 million tonnes of cargo over the same year. Further, its motive power came from the consumption of huge amounts of jet fuel; about 17 billion gallons or 2.2e18 Joules of energy. That’s huge! How long will it take for solar power planes to match this feat?

We certainly should keep on wishing and dreaming. It’s through these aspirations that we’ve already unlocked the capability and versatility of fossil fuels and transformed this Earth. So what does our imagination aspire us to for the age that’s to follow the technological age?
Solar Impulse 2

Electric Cars

June 15th, 2016

Can the electric car save us? Their sellers certainly want us to think so. And we know that ready transportation has become an essential enabler of our technological society. With it only little training and a slight twist of a wrist and a press of a foot can move ourselves prodigious distances. Given the coffee and sweets we typically bring along on the ride then not only do we use little body energy to move, we may actually gain stores of body energy. Yes, cars together with their associated infrastructure have been a boon to the individual. They may have saved many of us figuratively and literally.

But will they save our civilization? To propel themselves, traditional cars burn gasoline and translate some of the released energy to kinetic energy. On the other hand electric cars have batteries that store energy. They move when the battery’s stored energy is allowed to translate to kinetic energy. How much energy are we talking about? Assume all car petrol produced is used for cars. Then worldwide they consume 1.2E+17 Joules per day or 4.39E+19 Joules per year. If electric cars are to save us then all their batteries must be imbued with 1.2E+17 Joules every day because batteries are not a source of energy. They are simply an energy storage device. I leave it to you to calculate if solar collectors on your rooftop and everyone else’s would be enough to provide this amount of energy every day to save our civilization.

I consider it unlikely that solar collectors will provide enough energy for our civilization to continue with ready transportation for so many. But if not solar then from where? We know that 66% of all electricity today comes from non-renewable resources; coal, gas and oil. So, by using electric cars then we aren’t replacing the energy source. We’re simply changing its delivery mechanism. While electric transportation is cool and probably more efficient than gasoline powered transportation, on its own it won’t save civilization. We need other sources of safe reliable energy.